To unveil and motivate: Curriculum principles and case studies inspired by the Aspen Design Challenge
The INDEX: | AIGA Aspen Design Challenge, Designing Water's Future, grew out of discussions held during the January 2007 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. At the Forum, global thought leaders noted that the global water crisis needed a visual identity. Undergraduate and graduate students were challenged to communicate the urgent complexities of the global water crisis to audiences separated by demographics, education, and immediate need. In February 2009, seven Finalist and ten Honourable Mention projects were selected from the submissions of 225 project teams from 28 countries and six continents.
Students at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design took ownership of their learning through the Aspen Design Challenge and moved naturally into constructivist learning modes (problem-based, collaborative, interdisciplinary, and self-directed) that are not always favoured in traditional design education approaches. Students needed first to identify, define, and research their specific water issues; and then to create, test, and communicate their solutions. This paper presents three case studies that show how an external design competition can become a curriculum unit that meshes with a School's overall design curriculum and demonstrates the best practices in design education.
We prepare curricula that are integrated, interdisciplinary, globally focussed, and collaborative. These emerging aims require design educators to rethink the problems we pose, the motivations we offer, the ways we teach students to collaborate, the role of outside resources, the value we place on service, and our methods of evaluation. Today's globally connected youth will respond enthusiastically when we do so.
The best education doesn't end on the last day of class. It is part of the holistic personal development of students we teach. Our classes can encourage young people to feel empowered to make a difference in our world.
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Citation: Anne Ghory-Goodman (2009). To Unveil and Motivate: Curriculum Principles and Case Studies Inspired by The Aspen Design Challenge, Iridescent-Icograda Journal of Design Research, 1(1), 30-39.
I almost didn't take on the Aspen Design Challenge, an international competition for design students to propose solutions to global water problems. My junior students weren't ready to transition all-at-once from sophomore, teacher-led learning to the greater independence and abstraction this competition required. I had too many students to manage. This wasn't the kind of project we usually assigned in the Information Design class. No, the Aspen Challenge was too big and too hard.
But then I thought, "If I ask them to take risks, I need to take risks." This paper describes how my students and I expanded pre-conceived curriculum notions: about the appropriate form of a design problem, about student motivation, about independent vs. collaborative work, about the organisation of assignments, about the use of outside resources, about the power of service learning, and about the role of evaluation. After introducing these themes, I will explore them in three case studies.
Posing the problem
Did students realise their privileged position in Milwaukee next to one of the Great Lakes, the largest body of fresh water in the world?
Figure 1: The red circle indicates the location of the Great Lakes in North America. Source: www.nasaimages.org
Would students surrounded by fresh water relate to the needs of those without a reliable water supply and appreciate the enormity of the global water crisis? The Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD) overlooks the Milwaukee River. We joke that you can dive out a window and swim to Lake Michigan after a bad critique!
Figure 2: Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design on the Milwaukee River. Photographer: Anne Ghory-Goodman (2009)
Figure 3: Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.A. on the shores of Lake Michigan. Photographer: Anne Ghory-Goodman (2009)
Design curricula rarely broach such geo-political questions. While I could reliably predict the entry-level design skills of my students, I had no useful sense of their knowledge base related to global issues. My Information Design course needed to re-balance its emphasis from "design" toward "information." To participate in the Aspen Design Challenge, students had to research complex problems before visualising clear design solutions.
One of my objectives became to help students develop data collection and analysis skills related to a fundamental global problem that had been largely invisible to them. To clarify and reveal: that's what designers do all the time. The drive to unveil reality and motivate others makes our work fulfilling and interesting.
On the first day of class, the heads surreptitiously text-messaging snapped up when I said, "This semester, I will not teach you everything you learn. You will learn from books, movies, web sites, newspapers and magazines. You will leave the classroom and learn on-site from experts, exhibits, your audience, and each other."
Figure 4: Communication Design students on research trip to Discovery World aquarium. Photographer: Anne Ghory-Goodman (2008)
To prepare for a world we can barely envision, students must take ownership of the learning process. Design education's emphasis on research and discovery is essential for both their personal and professional futures.
Motivation: The Personal Connection
Early in my class, consulting Professor of Limnology Maurizio Murru asked the students what they knew about global water problems. This framed what they didn't know so they could start asking the right questions. Students need to want to learn.
Through their research, students found a personal connection to the issues. Designer Paul Sahre has said, "Design is supposed to be about something else, and not about you; but I think the only way it's actually any good – and to get people to care about it – is if it's also about you at the same time." (How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer, Debbie Millman, Allworth Press, 2007, p. 129.)
The first challenge for students was to identify their topics and share their personal identification with their subjects. One student brought her classmates to tears with a description of the horrible effects of the water-borne guinea worm on young children.
Guinea worm is a parasite which lives in the mud and water around water holes in certain African countries. There is no other water source for these people and when they drink the infected water they ingest the parasite. After an 18-month gestation period the worm emerges as an infected cyst, cripplingly painful and can incapacitate its victim for months. The worm is removed slowly, often over a period of days. The body of the worm is wrapped around a stick and drawn slowly out so as not to snap the creature in half, leaving the dying parasite inside the person. The people in these regions have no other water source and so are forced to go through this process many times.
-The Aspen Design Challenge to Students Africa PG 09
Figure 5: Poster for fifth grade classroom to teach children about the guinea worm and how water filtration can prevent it. Designed by the Bucket of Life Team: Kristen Palzkill, Jackie Berndt, and Jonathan Carnehl (2008)
Her team went on to develop educational materials for American ten-year-olds who connected to the story of these children and packaged a cloth based water filtration system for distribution in four African countries.
Collaboration: Working in teams
Adjunct Instructor Brian Pelsoh and I had over 30 students, initially divided into teams of four based on their preliminary research interests. As can be expected, not all of the teams were made in heaven. To facilitate learning, teachers need multiple strategies for addressing dysfunctional teams.
Being collaborative needs to be taught as part of the design curriculum. The principles we employed were basic ones. Designate a leader/coordinator. Listen actively to every idea when brainstorming. Divide up the work. Assign tasks based on skills. Make sure everybody knows how much his/her work counts. Value opinions that differ from your own. Provide suggestions rather than criticism. Compromise. Reach consensus. Internalise the deadlines. Be pro-active in problem solving. Seek help when you need it. Share. And, be sensitive to other cultures.
Figure 6: Logo for awareness campaign about bottled water with text in multiple languages. Designed by Why Bottled? Team: Chassy Tallon, Tara Towers, and Jillian Duckwitz (2008)
The "Why Bottled?" team wanted to speak (literally) to diverse global audiences. Their logo was in Polish, German, Swahili Japanese, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Arabic, Russian, Norwegian, Chinese, Italian and Czech.
Figure 7: Glass bottles filled with water and labeled with information about African water issues. Designed by the Adroa Team: Warissara (Phrae) Muangsaen, Andrew Palios, Viriya Pinyokool and Wasachai Siriyakornnurug (2008)
The "Adroa" team developed glass bottles for a water product whose profits would be channelled to water purification projects. Adroa is named for an African god who lives in river beds.
There were significant differences in approach, audience, medium, and purpose that informed the teams' responses to the design brief. This happens most frequently when a teacher lets go and shares or surrenders control to the student. It is a shift in focus from teacher-directed to learning-centered education.
Organising student work
The teacher needs to stretch students with high expectations, but support them in organising their work. To adapt the Challenge to our design curriculum, we added components not specifically called for by the Challenge. In addition to writing a comprehensive design brief accompanied by a schematic of related components, every team had to design and include a relevant map, produce at least one 20x30 poster, and include a multimedia component.
Figure 8: Map of a proposed "Running Water" fundraising marathon on the lakefront. Designed by Running Water Team: Chelsea Atwell, Cassandra Gerstandt, Heidi Stieber, and Carrie Templeton (2008)
This map was part of the "Running Water" team proposal for fundraising marathons along lakefronts and rivers with the intention that elite African runners would be spokespeople for the events.
In our field there are many opportunities to engage students in projects outside the classroom, but teachers have to balance the value of real-world problems with the necessity of choosing assignments that are meaningful and appropriate within the sequence of the curriculum. We also need to support the notion that interdisciplinary collaboration enriches the search for solutions with new ideas.
Figure 9: Commemorative eco friendly shoe. Designed by Running Water Team: Chelsea Atwell, Cassandra Gerstandt, Heidi Stieber, and Carrie Templeton (with shoe design consultants Brodie Tierney and Michael Ghory) (2008)
The "Running Water" team sought a footwear designer and developer from the Weyco group to help create a vintage styled, eco-friendly, athletic shoe to appeal to counter-culture, sneaker aficionados. Every team sought collaborators in other disciplines to create a better proposal. This project compelled them to seek more advanced skills, bringing questions to multimedia teachers and experts and adapting assignments in other classes to their needs. The students helped create an interdisciplinary, integrated, learning experience.
Young people addressing global problems should bring untraditional approaches and new media to the discussion. Our students profiled potential users and strategised how to maximise the potential for new media to aid their cause. The "Running Water" website provided an opportunity for a global audience, the elderly, and handicapped to create avatars who participated in the event by running in a virtual marathon along the bottom of the web pages.
Figure 10: Web page with avatars running across the bottom of the screen. Designed by Running Water Team: Chelsea Atwell, Cassandra Gerstandt, Heidi Stieber, and Carrie Templeton (2008)
Explore outside resources
Soon after we began this project, MIAD established a partnership with Discovery World, a lakefront museum and research facility that includes interactive science, technology and freshwater exhibits; learning labs; theaters; television and audio studios; and fresh and saltwater aquariums. Students could walk there from school. There was no excuse for relying on Google for research.
Figure 11: Discovery World: "dedicated to helping people positively impact their communities by developing a better understanding of technology and the environment while fostering both innovation and creativity". Photographer: Anne Ghory-Goodman (2009)
Figure 12: Discovery World Great Lakes exhibit. Photographer: Anne Ghory-Goodman (2009)
Students pursued scientific information at Discovery World where the process of purifying water from Lake Michigan water is made visible. The museum's director, Paul Krajniak, became a resource, critic, and advocate for our students' work, and eventually commissioned two MIAD projects to become permanent installations there.
Finding meaning through service learning
Interest in water issues rippled through MIAD. Students not enrolled in our course asked to become involved. Teachers in other courses started reporting impassioned papers and speeches about global water issues in response to their assignments. It was not surprising. At MIAD there is an institutional commitment to service learning. Students are required to work in the community for at least 90 hours in the junior year in order to graduate. This hands-on service is expanded with readings and guided writings including a major paper called, "This I Believe."
Figure 13: This I Believe by Carrie Vander Pas (2009)
Figure 14: This I believe by Jackie Berndt (2009)
Figure 15: Editorial collaboration between communication design and illustration students by Adrian Gilling (2009)
Figure 16: Publication designed to highlight service to the community by artists and designers by Wendy Young and Laurel Komp (2009)
Designers must be articulate and learn to organise their thinking on paper with words as well as with pictures. Students write, design, photograph, and illustrate their responses to their service work.
At a crucial stage of identity development, our students want to live a meaningful life. Most are motivated more by ideals than by financial gain. Over 70% of the students at MIAD are the first in their families to attend college. Virtually all of them receive financial aid and combine schoolwork with demanding jobs to help offset their costs. They need to believe that their education matters.
Evaluation that supports learning
As this project migrated beyond the design skills curriculum it became clear I should not be the sole person to evaluate student work. Including external sources for criticism and feedback always helps to objectify the quality of design results in the eyes of students. Multiple authentic evaluation sources immediately take assessment from, "What does the teacher want?" to "How does the work exhibit professionally recognisable design excellence?" The MIAD Aspen Design Challenge teams were anxious to win the competition. Facing external evaluation was a powerful motivating force during the Challenge.
Case Study 1. The "Aqua Independence Project"
Juan Hernandez was the leader of the "Aqua Independence Project" team. He had grown up in Tzintzingareo, a town without running water, two hours northwest from Mexico City.
Figure 17: The Aqua Independence Team. Juan Hernandez, Xavier Ruffin, Desiree May, and Scott Bednar. Photographer: Anne Ghory-Goodman (2009)
His story resonated with Xavier Ruffin, an African American student who had lived in rough neighborhoods as a child and had never traveled by plane. The problem caught the imagination of Desiree May, a girl from Green Bay who had never applied for a passport. The challenge also bothered Scott Bednar, the father of a three-year-old son, who commuted over an hour to Milwaukee for school and the opportunity to change careers.
Figure 18: Tzintzingareo, Mexico: Field Site for the Aqua Independence Team (2008)
This team did not want to sit in Wisconsin with third-hand information about a situation that existed thousands of miles away. They were adamant about the need to conduct primary field research to find local solutions to local problems. They took as their frame of reference the Chinese proverb:
Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.
Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
So the "Aqua Independence Project" team sold cupcakes and hotdogs on the front steps of MIAD to raise funds to purchase plane tickets to Tzintzingareo, Mexico. I'd never taught a class where students had gone to such lengths for an assignment. In fact, all of the teams began to function with similar independence. When I'd arrive for class at 8 am, teams working together, already clustered in their favourite corners of the studio, would barely glance up. I had been reduced, or rather elevated, to a resource - one among many.
To document their process of listening, observing and reflecting, the Aqua Independence Project team filmed their experience.
One could witness their process of internalising an important design lesson, "Never make assumptions about your audience or base a design on your limited personal frame of reference." This understanding is vital in the work of all designers sensitive to a global audience.
The "Aqua Independence Project" team members found that one of the reasons for limited access to water in Tzintzingareo was that too many people thought water should be free. This viewpoint had huge implications for the viability of their water pumping system and for the commitment of the volunteers who tried to keep it running. Without funds for frequent repairs to a fragile pumping system, water was intermittently available.
What could four U.S. design students do? First, they needed to address the biggest problem: convincing people who paid their bills for electricity and satellite TVs or cell phones that they also needed to pay for water.
Figure 19: Names posted of people who had not paid their water bills. Photo by the Aqua Independence Team (2008)
They learned that raising awareness about the need to pay water bills was crucial. They focus-tested whether posters on walls in public places could communicate a compelling message to the community.
Figure 20: This poster is free. Pumping water is not. Design by the Aqua Independence Team (2008)
Figure 21: We can't do it without your support. Do your part. Design by the Aqua Independence Team (2008)
In addition, they found that installing water meters in homes could identify delinquent payers. Those people would then suffer the consequences of non-payment - the water turned off in their homes.
Figure 22: No Electric, No Lights; No Water, No Life. Design by the Aqua Independence Team (2008)
With adequate funds, the pumps could be repaired and water provided reliably to the entire town. Without funds, the two men who volunteered to repair breakdowns were on the verge of quitting. At the end of their patience, the men became so encouraged by the MIAD students' interest in their work that they re-committed to maintaining the infrastructure while new strategies for fundraising were put in place.
The team also considered the needs of a town dependent on water harvesting by developing a water harvesting module that integrates a sand filtration system to purify the water collected. The World Health Organization says that slow sand filtration "makes the best use of the local skills and materials available in developing countries." (www.who.int)
This aligned with their commitment to discovering local solutions to local problems. (The "Osmoto" team also pursued a water purification and carrier device in collaboration with industrial design classmates.)
Figure 23: "Aqua Independence Project" team's Water Harvesting Module and the "Osmoto" team's water access/purification solution (2008)
The Aqua Independence Project did not win recognition from the competition. Yet, in the nine months since my Information Design class ended they have: added students from Film and Industrial Design to their team, developed an interactive educational kiosk with a touch sensitive screen, been commissioned to create an exhibit at Discovery World, enlarged their website, prepared a funding request for Badger Meter Company (one of the largest water meter companies in the world, serendipitously based in Milwaukee), designed a poster campaign, obtained donated printing, installed the posters in public places in Tsintsingareo, and presented a proposal to the local chapter of the Rotary International for their return trip to Mexico to continue their work this fall. They have recently learned that the World Services Committee of the Rotary Club of Milwaukee has granted MIAD $1,000 to support their efforts and will assist in their request to Badger Meter. Today they are researching the most appropriate meters for use in Tsintsingareo and outlining how to use and measure the effectiveness of their Rotary grant.
Figure 24: Touch screen and educational exhibit. Design by the Aqua Independence Team.
Figure 25: Web design. www.aiprojectonline.org Design by the Aqua Independence Team (2008)
They took ownership of their learning to fulfill their commitment to service and in the process began to create personal futures molded by their social conscience.
Case Study 2. The "Restore Our Great Lakes" Team
As U.S. Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama were making campaign promises about funding varying Great Lakes initiatives, MIAD's "Restore Our Great Lakes" team grappled with the issues around protection and restoration of the Great Lakes Ecosystems. Toxic pollutants, climate change, misuse, and invasive species are rapidly diminishing the quality of water in the Great Lakes. Over 33 million people live in the Great Lakes Basin. It accounts for 95% of all fresh surface water in the United States and it is in danger. Here was another previously invisible global problem for my design students to understand and clarify. It was literally in their backyard.
Once again students researched and confirmed the relevant facts. Great Lakes water issues are complicated by conflicting national points of views (U.S., Canada, and countries who ship or supply goods). Access to water is limited by national, state, and local regulations. What fishermen desire may conflict with the preferences of recreational boat owners or homeowners. The team had to consider multiple audiences before identifying a way to educate the public about these critical issues.
Reaching beyond the classroom, this team met with experts at the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee's Fresh Water Institute. As part of a regional strategic plan to help the local economy recover from the recession, Milwaukee has been seeking to position itself as "The Fresh Water Capital of the World." As a result, many city planners and local businesses are especially attuned to water issues, so students were working on the cutting edge of a vital regional priority.
For their design solution, they determined that an interactive, web-based vehicle would reach the largest target audience. They developed an educational site including simple information graphics and downloadable posters to get their message across.
Figure 26: Restore Our Great Lakes posters by Lisa Jensen, Jace Rauman, Jason Rothman and Ed Dominique (2008)
As an extension, team members used their research as the basis for persuasive arguments presented in English classes. They became knowledgeable about how to be politically effective and, in the process, developed expertise leading to "green" careers. Their work demonstrated the integrated learning that sees education as a holistic pursuit.
Case Study 3. The "Blue Side" Team
In the United States, people use water indiscriminately because it is inexpensive and of relatively good quality. Cultural norms favour leaving the water running for dishwashing and showers. Water-intensive lawns are the standard for landscaping. Cars and driveways are rinsed with copious amounts of water. Most Americans don't think twice about turning the water on.
The "Blue Side" team took on the challenge of raising consciousness about indiscriminate water use. They adopted a multi-pronged media concept to deliver their message about water conservation, including environmental sculpture, advertising, print, and animation. They opted for a "guerilla" (unconventional) campaign focus to inspire people to conserve water and to create indelible educational messages reinforcing conservation. Combining the complementary skills of Thai and American students Punyaruk Baingern, Panchalee Phungsoondara, Emery Ullenberg and Maxx Valenti, this team successfully collaborated by asking each person to design the pieces s/he could do best. That tactic made the collaboration work.
Their focus was on changing behaviour. Because the Blue Side team wanted people to look at water conservation in new ways in new places, they selected orange, not blue, as the colour of their campaign. Keeping an irreverent attitude, they chose the long lines for temporary bathrooms at large public events as places to meet a captive audience with their message about limiting the use of water in toilets.
Figure 27: Temporary public toilets with messages about water conservation. Design by the Blue Side Team: Punyaruk Baingern, Panchalee Phungsoondara, Emery Ullenberg and Maxx Valenti (2008).
Using humour, always effective in drawing attention to a message, they created "short showers" (half the usual size) to communicate the importance of limiting the water used while bathing. And, they proposed to install a large dripping faucet in public venues.
Figure 28: Short showers installed in public places combined with floor graphics about conserving water while bathing or showering. Design by the Blue Side Team (2008)
Figure 29: Large-scale public sculpture of a dripping faucet highlights the issue of water conservation. Design by the Blue Side Team (2008)
Figure 30: Educational posters about water conservation. Design by the Blue Side Team (2008)
These messages were delivered through door tags, web sites, animation, web banners, and print-based pieces to reach many audiences through many media. Their broad view of engaging and educating the public was selected for Honourable Mention by Aspen Design Challenge judges. The entire MIAD community celebrated this outcome.
The best education doesn't end on the last day of class. It is part of the holistic personal development of students we teach. Our classes can encourage young people to feel empowered to make a difference in our world. We needn't teach design skills in isolation. We can prepare curricula that are integrated, interdisciplinary, globally focussed, and collaborative. These emerging aims require design educators to rethink the problems we pose, the motivations we offer, the ways we teach students to collaborate, the role of outside resources, the value we place on service, and our methods of evaluation. Today's globally connected youth will respond enthusiastically when we do so.
About Anne Ghory-Goodman
Anne Ghory-Goodman is a Professor at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. She has participated in exhibitions, been included in publications, won awards, and lectured on design and photography in the U.S. and abroad. Last year, her posters were exhibited in Havana, Cuba and Lima, Peru. She was awarded Fellowships for both Photography and Design Arts, by the National Endowment for the Arts. She has notably won awards for the NYU Child Study Center website and from the Society of Environmental Graphic Design for the exhibit "Thinking and Making: An April Greiman Retrospective".
Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design
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Xin: Icograda World Design Congress 2009
This paper was submitted for the Icograda Education Network (IEN) Conference that took place during the Icograda World Design Congress 2009 in Beijing, China, which was planned in collaboration with the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA). The broader theme of the congress, Xin, literally signifies human speaking and hence message/letter in Chinese, Xin-信 which represents a primitive means of communication. The IEN conference invited papers under the following themes: Design Education and Innovation; Design Education and Diversity; Design Education and Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration and Design Education and Regional Development.
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- Facing the Future: Postgraduate Research in Communication Design
- Sustainability and Design
- Understanding How Graphic Design is Animated Through Use
- New Approaches to Writing About Graphic Design
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